Class system alive and well

Published September 1, 1998

RECENTLY THE NEW YORK TIMES did a front-page study of U.S. airlines, comparing life at the front of the plane with life at the back, and noting the trends for the future.

Over the last decade there has been a marked improvement in service for people flying first and second class (the front and middle of the plane), and a marked decline in service for third class (the back). The article detailed the evidence.

The ratio of staff-to-passenger has increased at the front and decreased sharply at the back. Meals at the front have not improved all that much (they were always pretty good) but have declined dramatically in quality, quantity and frequency at the back.

And so the catalogue continues. The airlines become one more contributor to an increasingly stratified society.

My work takes me often to the airport (more than 100 flights last year) and I observe the same dynamics in Canada, if less pronounced. Because I fly so often, I occasionally get an involuntary upgrade and see life at the front of the plane. For me, the significant benefit at the front is the few centimetres more of space in front of and beside me.

Of course, anyone who flies is part of a privileged minority in this world. Whatever the discomfort of narrow seats, overcrowded airports, long line-ups at immigration, it is light years away from the weeks my grandmother and her children spent on the North Atlantic in 1905.

But the reinforcing of “class” is to me a troubling sign. I remember as a young man seeing the first-class carriages of Paris and London subways. Now, at least, they are class-free (as are Toronto and Montreal). But in so many other places, things get better at the top and worse at the bottom.

And what criterion justifies and reinforces this distinction? Not blood, aristocracy, race, creed, education. Certainly not need! It is money alone.

This phenomenon was not invented by American Airlines. It has been with us forever. But it is distressing to see it growing in a society whose ancestors fled precisely that sort of class system.

In the second chapter of his epistle, James warns the church against class consciousness. In verses two and three, he specifically chooses the example of seating in the congregation to make the point that the church must not favour the rich when it gathers as a community.

That example poses for me the challenge that lies before us in these days. Is it enough simply to say: “Our standards are not of this world. We shall strive to build and model a community where roles are based on the gifts and talents God has given each, the calling each has received, not on money. If the world chooses to heed this example, fine; if not, it goes its way and we shall try to stay uncontaminated by it.”?

Or is it closer to the intent of the Gospel to say that Paul’s challenge for the church to be a place where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free” also presses the church to make the same challenge to the world around us? I think the latter is true.

And in the meantime, though all the passengers eventually arrive at the same destination, the distance between the front and the back of the plane grows greater every year.

Archbishop Michael Peers is the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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